The other day, a good friend shared how overwhelmed she was about her level of loss. Not only has COVID-19 contributed to this through isolation from family and friends, financial loss, and changes in work, but some close friends of hers have experienced significant deaths (not all due to COVID-19). She was not sure how to respond, what to say, how to help.
It reminded me of the Buddhist story about Kisa Gotami. She was a mother overcome with grief after the death of her young child to such an extent many thought she had lost her mind. People advised her to go and seek the wisdom of the Buddha. He said he could help her, but first, she must complete a task. She was to obtain a single mustard seed by visiting the homes in the village, but the seed was to come from a family that had not been touched by death. She followed the Buddha's instructions and went door to door, and as she told her story, the families shared their stories of death. She was not able to return to the Buddha with a mustard seed as she could not find one family who had not been touched by death. She did return with a deep understanding and awareness that she was not alone nor separate from others in her grief. She awakened to the reality that no one is free from mortality and in that found comfort and healing.
Grief is powerful. Clinging to it or avoiding inhibits us from moving forward. In acknowledging that loss and grief are integral to being human, it can create a shift from separateness to interconnectedness. There is no fixing of the suffering that comes with grief. It invites us to turn toward it, to be with it, and move through it. One of the most significant resources available to us is each other. Holding space and offering deep, quiet listening, that is a gift.
Nine months after my husband Don died, I became a volunteer at Calgary Hospice with the Living with Cancer Group and a bereavement volunteer. Many have asked, "how can you do it so soon after Don's death? Isn't it too raw?" And my answer is, "Yes, it is, it is still very raw." Sitting in space with those who are terminal, and those who have experienced a significant loss is my way of going door to door looking for the mustard seed. Sharing and talking about grief and loss does not make it harder; it makes it easier.
Often when I connect with friends and family, Don's death is rarely brought up. If I initiate it, space usually fills with a silent awkwardness. In my experience, people are willing to talk about death if someone is willing to invite the conversation and listen. When I mention that I am passionate about helping people talk about mortality inevitably, they tell me their "death" story. It is an honour to bear witness.
So for my friend, who is not sure what to do here is what I suggest. Ask about the loss, listen, and share your story. Simple and profound.